Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It was gritty and hard-hitting and earned a terrific reputation in 1971 that took it to the top on Oscar night. The French Connection is a cagey combination of documentary style, anti-Hollywood content, and commercial thrills. It's also got some terrific acting, and helped inaugurate a kind of cop movie that still hasn't been superceded, 30 years later.
Crude and rough narcs Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy 'Cloudy' Russo (Roy Scheider) live and breathe their work, and while nightclubbing during off hours Popeye can't help but investigate a high-rolling diner proprietor whose attitude irks him. Slowly, they pry their way into a drug traffic deal organized by a shifty Frenchman named Charnier (Fernando Rey). Bulldogging past uncooperative elements in their own department, they pursue the smugglers and their supremely confident leader in the frozen streets of New York.
A lot has been written about how crime movies evolved from hardboiled noir in the '40s (The Big Sleep), into bland but realistic 'police procedurals' in the '50s (The Lineup). But another change took place in the late '60s, when crime thrillers had become flashy and glossy, perhaps trying to best the escapism of the Bond films. Several exceptions pointed to a desire to create a new style: Bullitt with its TV-Commercial surface; Point Blank's Antonioni-with-a-Gun ethic;
and the Tony Rome films that tried to turn Frank Sinatra into Derek Flint as an aging swinger. The pivot picture for this argument is Don Siegel's Madigan, which had the surface feel of a television movie (especially the music) but breathed anxiety and delivered a socko violent ending.
Starting in documentaries, filmmaker William Friedkin stumbled a bit in some previous features but made his mark by pulling out all the stops for The French Connection. The tight storyline presents cops in action as if filmed by hidden cameras: they swear, bicker like schoolboys and they wear their negative racial attitudes on their sleeves. Based on real cops who were advisors and bit players in the film, Friedkin's Doyle and Russo live like bums and are obsessed with their work. They stake out suspected criminals like those hunters who disappear into snowy woods for weeks to
track down their prey. One of the key images has Hackman and Scheider shuddering with cold in a frozen doorway, scarfing down clammy hot dogs, while across the street the criminals eat a choice meal in a four star restaurant.
The French Connection's jaded attitude toward the hopelessness of law enforcement was news to a lot of moviegoers who hadn't paid attention to decades of cop movies saying the same thing, but less directly. The docu feeling is very convincing. Doyle and Russo's efforts are 98% personal initiative, while most of the cops around them just do their jobs, or in some cases, hinder one other. Only by working practically 24 hours a day do they have a prayer of breaking their cases, against cool customers who know all the tricks.
The script sketches events lightly and forces us to fill in the gaps, essentially treating the audience like adults - which forced Savant to watch it two or three times when it was new, just to understand what was going on! The usual foreshadowing, repetition of exposition and recaps were missing. By being forced to pay close attention to the intrinsically interesting material, The French Connection pulls you into its rough world. Only intermittently does Friedkin resort to 'directed' moments, such as Doyle's triumphantly self-satisfied roadblock on a highway bridge, that give the audience a chance to feel solidly in the picture.
Hackman's Popeye Doyle character is a great original. A borderline thug & vigilante, he's been brutalized by more than his police work and appears to consort with known criminals after hours. Again, it's all personal, as Doyle discusses 'standard' organized crime with his cronies. Friedkin & co. almost, but not quite, make the film a criticism of the Doyle character. In one very impressive scene, he's shown picking up an attractive bicyclist by misusing his authority, harassing her just as one might expect a gang thug to behave. The message seems to be that to pursue crooks through
cities that resemble garbage heaps, you need garbagemen.
The NYC on view here is the one that stuck pretty much until the reforms of Mayor Giuliani in the '90s - filthy, ugly, unpainted, graffiti'd and broken down. This picture and the (lousy) comedy The Out-of-Towners collectively maimed the Big Apple's reputation for decades. Savant's only been there once in 1998 but loved the place, just about the only tourist attraction I've visited where ignorant tourists are treated with respect and courtesy.
Phillip D'Antoni must have laid out an edict that Friedkin's film could be anything as long as it had a knockout action scene of the commercial kind that had turned Bullitt into an event picture three seasons previous. The race between a commandeered Pontiac LeMans and an elevated train is just as harrowing as the San Francisco Grand Prix of the Steve McQueen movie, perhaps even more so with the emotionally out-of-control Doyle at the wheel. In the text and docu portions of this 'Five Star Collection Special Edition Disc' 1 Friedkin and others claim that the scene was stolen, that Hackman and other drivers really did scream through real traffic, endangering real lives and causing real collisions. I'd heard this before and assumed it was good-for-boxoffice pub hype, and I'd rather keep believing that. Having later lost all respect for Friedkin with his film The Exorcist, 2
I didn't need to know that his irresponsibility for his art went that far.
The French Connection inspired a very good John Frankenheimer sequel, The French Connection II, which has
the distinction of being the first sequel to simply throw a "2" behind the original title. The gambit didn't pay off as well with another numbered remake of a Friedkin hit 5 years later, the disastrous Exorcist 2.
If The French Connection's world-altering innovations no longer seem obvious, it's probably because its style is still in vogue, especially on television cop shows. Friedkin can definitely claim stylistic paternity for most of the cop features that graced the first half of the '70s : Badge 373, The Seven-Ups, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Serpico, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3. Roy Scheider was at the time associated with little else, and seemed the iconic center of the movement. The end of the genre coincides perfectly with the rise of Steven Spielberg in 1975. Jaws is about the efforts of a very NYC cop (Scheider of course) who takes on a whole new kind of threat on the high seas. Seeing the hero of The French Connection put on his glasses and gunbelt and lob a cylinder full of 358 magnum slugs into the giant shark, with no visible effects, struck Savant as practically an epitaph for the The French Connection-style cop show. No more docu grit and low-life crime; from then on future was to be high-concept escapism.
The DVD of The French Connection is quite a polished package. First off is the incredibly good
transfer, which looks far better than the original release prints that were so impressive for their slimy, grainy and colorless look. (I can see the Fox people in 1971 approving any mess that came from Deluxe as ready for the screen: "Looks terrible! Good Work! Ship it!") There's still some grain, but the scenes all pop with sharp detail, even the murky bar interiors that came off like 8mm back when the film was new. The previous VHS and laser releases looked pretty darn crummy too, so I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality on this DVD. The excellent 5.1 remix of the original mono audio was supervised by Friedkin at Chace Productions in Burbank.
There are two commentary tracks, one with Friedkin and one with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. The wealth of extras require an entire second disc. There's the expected behind the scenes docu, a BBC docu that amuses by placing its Brit host on the film's Manhattan locations, a short selection of deleted scenes introduced by Friedkin (which Savant edited last January), a still gallery and trailers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The French Connection rates:
Supplements: Lots. See above paragraphs.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 22, 2001
1. Sheesh, what hype. You won't read me referring to this DVD as that
2. I'm not fishing for a fight over The Exorcist; I just had very negative response to it ... and understand all too well that 99% of film fans think it's tops.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Return to Top of Page